Now playing at Flashpoint’s tiny Mead Theatre Lab, MAE — billed as a “full length play with music”— is playwright Kathryn O’Sullivan’s lighthearted though occasionally somber riff on the life and good times of legendary entertainer Mae West. Directed by Paul Awad, the play itself is spotty. But it’s frequently redeemed by an astounding performance by Rachel Hardin in the show’s title role.
Current generations may know little of Mae West. Born in 1893 in Brooklyn, NY, Mary Jane West began her stage career as a child, soon evolving into a popular vaudevillian, a triple threat as an actress-comedienne, a songstress, and a dancer. Early in her career she developed her trademark persona—a swivel-hipped good bad-girl whose bawdy one-liners at times could rival those of Oscar Wilde, save for their patented, double-entendre vulgarity.
Quite uninhibited for those times, West never hesitated to appear with female impersonators, some of whose exaggerated feminine moves she adopted as her own. She was to remain a lifelong champion of alternative lifestyles, a fact that may have contributed to her enduring popularity even today in the gay and transsexual communities.
West’s talent in song and dance helped popularize the song “Everybody Shimmies Now,” whose provocative, slithery gyrations proved popular with flappers in the 1920s and, in a sense, may have paved the way for more provocative dance styles post-1950.
It’s little remembered that she eventually wrote many of her own Broadway plays. Most proved quite popular with everyone but the censors who shadowed her every move. One of her hits, “Sex” — the title alone was trouble enough—won her a brief trip to the Welfare (now Roosevelt) Island prison which she deftly deployed to win even greater publicity for her stage efforts.
Her notoriety didn’t escape the notice of Hollywood which eventually recruited her to appear in feature films that soon proved more popular as her Broadway ventures, winning a national audience besides. Films like “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel” paired her with up-and-coming Cary Grant and made her a fortune. But predictably, she also ran afoul of the Hollywood censors, which effectively ended her career there in the early 1940s.
Undaunted, she moved her act to Las Vegas where, for many years, she headlined popular, campy stage productions, often surrounded by ripped “muscle-men” with six-pack abs. She occasionally appeared on TV as well, and returned to film briefly to star with Raquel Welch in Gore Vidal’s “Myra Breckinridge,” a 1970 box-office flop that’s still regarded in many circles as a campy cult hit.
After barely making it through her last film, the unsuccessful “Sextette” (1978), West’s health began to decline. She died in 1980.
O’Sullivan’s play roughly charts this chronology, but does so in an unusual way. The drama opens in the dressing room of a female impersonator (Matthew G. Myers), whose lousy “Mr. Mae West” act is about to get closed down, presumably in a third-rate Las Vegas venue. But it just happens to be Mr. West’s lucky day. Out of nowhere, the spirit of Mae West (Rachel Hardin) materializes in his dressing room.
Taking pity on this crestfallen loser, the “real” Mae West insists on teaching him how she really works, whisking him through the highlights and lowlights of her colorful life while teaching him the right song and dance moves, all the better to inhabit her character and save his act. Unlike Scrooge and the spirits, who always remain invisible as they time-travel in A Christmas Carol, Mr. West sometimes participates in the action of these flashback scenes.
The show is at its best when Rachel Hardin is center stage doing the shimmy or belting out one of the Mae West’s signature numbers. She’s aided and abetted by a generally talented cast, including Cate Brewer, Robert Bromley, Lacey Anne Garcia, Phillip Hylton, David Kozisek, Shannon Perkins Jr., Zophia Pryzby, Charlie Retzlaff, Amy Thompson, and Johnno Wilson. All play a number of smaller roles ranging from West’s close-knit family to her various lovers, hangers-on, and muscle-men.
But it’s ultimately Hardin’s superb effort that keeps the show on track. The early part of the show is droopy. There’s entirely too much time devoted to Mr. West’s depression and introspection. The dialogue is wooden and overwritten, though Matthew Myers does his best to bring it to life.
Additionally, from time to time throughout the course of the show, one or another characters indulges in tedious literary or psychological analysis which slows the pace of the production to a crawl. Playwrights and novelists alike are always encouraged to “show, don’t tell.” But in this case, there’s sometimes an overabundance of “telling,” almost as if the playwright is unsure she’s gotten her point across. It’s sort of like explaining a joke after you’ve told it, and it always seems out of place.
The Mae West impersonator frame-tale itself seems a bit of a stretch. It’s reminiscent of the 2009 film “Julie and Julia” in which a devotee of TV’s famous French chef, Julia Child, endeavors to live up to her heroine’s skills, inspiring flashbacks to the career of the real Julia. Childs’ storied life was interesting enough, often making the “Julie” frame tale seem self-indulgent and superfluous.
O’Sullivan, however, may have a better excuse here for using a similar device. Mae West’s career was long, controversial, flashy, and action-packed. As in an opera, where a complicated story must be reduced to key, singable scenes, a drama revolving around West’s colorful life is perhaps best charted by taking the same path. There’s simply too much tale to be told.
Employing a frame-tale device where scenes from the past can magically materialize as needed to underscore a point is certainly a valid approach to the dilemma. Perhaps the problem here is that the scenes without Mae West herself often seem half-hearted and lifeless—although Mr. West’s final, redemptive solo shot proves quite effective once he’s able to embody the life of his mentor. And maybe that’s the point. But a scissors here and there would improve the psychological journey considerably.
A hat tip to pianist Danielle DeSwert Hahn is in order at this point. In this budget production, she’s the whole band, as it were. While the supplied electric piano sounded feeble at times, Ms. Hahn’s performance was fine, surprisingly effective in a show that seemed to want a larger instrumental ensemble.
MAE is a fitfully enjoyable show that shines when Rachel Hardin is onstage and sometimes sputters when she is not. The music is great, the humorous moments are generally funny, and the dark moments are surprisingly moving. Fans of Mae West will love the show in spite of its flaws. Others will have a mixed opinion.
by Kathryn O’Sullivan
directed by Paul Awad
produced by KatPa Productions
reviewed by Terry Ponick
MAE runs thru Oct 2, 2010 at Flashpoint Gallery, Washington, DC.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.